Texas county yields after legal challenge, will allow Christian school to hold in-person classes

The state attorney general had previously ordered counties to allow religious schools to operate.

Updated: August 23, 2020 - 8:01am

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A county on the Texas-Mexico border has pulled back from ordering at least one Christian school to remain closed at the start of the semester following a legal challenge arguing that county authorities had no jurisdiction over whether such schools could open. 

Cameron County, Texas, on Aug. 10 announced an "emergency health control order" that delayed "in person face-to-face public and private school instruction" in the county until at least after Sept. 28, and possibly longer. 

That order was pursuant to "the health, safety, and well-being of our teachers, campus staffs, and students" due to concerns that schools in the area might become hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks if they were allowed to resume in-person instruction. 

That order came nearly a month after Texas Attorney General A.G. Paxton declared that, as a feature of Gov. Greg Abbot's executive orders related to the pandemic, local counties had no authority to shut down religious institutions, including schools, as part of pandemic mitigation measures. 

"[L]ocal governments are prohibited from closing religious institutions or dictating mitigation strategies to those institutions," Paxton said at the time. "Local governments are similarly prohibited from issuing blanket orders closing religious private schools."

Last week, county attorney Juan Gonzalez told local institution Calvary Christian School that the county would be ignoring Paxton's directive, deeming it "not grounded in legitimate or correct legal analysis" and "nothing more than an opinion." 

The county's directive "is in full legal force and effect for all schools in Cameron County," Gonzalez said. 

Legal org takes up case

Following the county's decision, Calvary Christian engaged the representation of the First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal organization in Plano, Texas, that touts itself as "the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious liberty for all Americans."

In a letter to Gonzalez, First Liberty Special Counsel Jeremy Dys wrote that the county's order "must yield" before Paxton's directive. 

"Calvary Christian certainly appreciates the delicate situation presented by COVID- 19," Dys wrote. "Nonetheless, we must insist that Cameron County respect the laws and fundamental freedoms of this state and nation."

"Calvary Christian will resume in-person meetings on September 8, 2020," Dys added. "Any effort by Cameron County to enforce its unlawful order of August 10, 2020, will be viewed as an affront to the religious liberty of Calvary Christian and met with the strictest legal defense."

A second Christian school, Laguna Madre Christian Academy, subsequently came on board with the challenge. On Friday, First Liberty announced that Laguna Madre had been cleared by the county for opening. 

"We are grateful that Cameron County officials recognize that Laguna Madre Christian Academy is able to begin meeting again safely," Dys told Just the News. "We trust that officials will take similar action for our other client, Calvary Christian School of Excellence, recognizing the significant thought and planning that they have done to ensure the safety and health of their community as they also begin face-to-face instruction on September 8."

Officials with Paxton's office did not respond to phone calls on Friday afternoon. Reached on Friday, a representative of the Cameron County legal division said the county had reviewed current epidemiological data and determined that Laguna was safe to reopen. "We are currently taking Calvary into consideration," she said. 

Dys, meanwhile, said that the county "appears to be willing to grant one-off requests for exceptions they deem worthy, but they have yet to recognize the religious autonomy of these religious institutions."  

"Rather than dictate what Calvary Christian or LMCA should do, perhaps they ought to begin by recognizing and respecting the autonomy of these religious institutions," he said. 

Both Calvary and Laguna Madre have instituted broad mitigation measures to head off any possible coronavirus outbreaks, including mask mandates for students and staff, "privacy shields" on school desks, and one-way hallways, among other policies.

In his July letter, Paxton said that "religious private schools may continue to determine when it is safe for their communities to resume in-person instruction free from any government mandate or interference."

"Religious private schools therefore need not comply with local public health orders to the contrary," he added.